Tennessee Williams is known for his strong plots and sharp characterizations which carry his plays to dramatic resolutions, uplifting as in Suddenly Last Summer or convulsive as in A Streetcar Named Desire. Oftentimes, Williams foreshadows how he will spin his characters toward a satisfying or upsetting climax.
In his rare work of existential genius, The Two-Character Play, now at New World Stages starring Amanda Plummer and Brad Dourif and directed by Gene David Kirk, Williams uses playful irony, uncertainty, and the indeterminate paradox of actor-observers caught in an opaque reality which shifts to an unreal staged drama and back. Contrary to his other works, The Two-Character Play has no clear resolution and the audience is free to consider the meanings and themes, having to come to their own conclusions about the kaleidoscopic bits, images and character ramblings and the acute, rich dialogue. With this unusual work, Williams jettisoned his earlier dramatic formulas and experimented with a completely different stylistic approach.
In the early 1970s when the play first opened as Out Cry, audiences expecting the usual Williams and were disappointed; the play closed after 11 performances. In its present home at New World Stages on 50th Street in NYC, the play, which was revised by Williams numerous times, has taken on an amazing incarnation with the phenomenal Plummer, the equally brilliant Dourif, and their director. Together, they have elevated this revival into a realm that audiences can appreciate and acknowledge: the play is a diamond amongst Williams’ lesser jewels.
By degrees, the audience as a silent character/observer discovers that Claire (Plummer) and Felice (Dourif) are sibling actors deemed crazy by their touring troupe who have ditched them in a ramshackle theater, where they must find their way out of the jumbled morass of time and place. The brother and sister realize that whatever play was to be performed by the ensemble has not been canceled. Some play must go on because the audience is being seated. Williams has broken the fourth wall and we, the seated audience, are silent watchers who try to figure out the threads of reality as Claire and Felice attempt to divine them as well. As they bicker and work through their abandonment by the others and “confinement” to perform for us, the tragic-comic nature of their plight – finding themselves in a place and time not of their making and not in their power to control – has shades of theater of the absurd and a bit of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.
We strangely empathize with their existential angst and their attempts at grounding and controlling the reality of their situation as they take on the personas of two competitive divas. These are witty, humorous moments for the audience, but painful too. We laugh despite the pair’s grief and the underlying terror of their confusion. The revelation is that we are laughing and yet appalled at our empathy. Finally, after tenuous decision-making, they select from their repertoire the only play the duo can perform with the present shabby set, the interior of a macabre house (designed by Alice Walkling) and no help from the technical crew or troupe members who have fled. They will perform Felice’s work, The Two-Character Play.
Williams has been prepping us for their performance. This is what we are here to see, but it is a play within a play, within a play, so we are holding up a mirror to another mirror and seeing the innumerable reflections within. We have been tricked, and are now willing to leave the labyrinth behind hoping to arrive at some linear movement out of the convolutions, only to be taken deeper inside them.
The play Claire and Felice perform is about a reclusive brother and sister abandoned by their insane father who has shot his wife and then committed suicide. The inference is that Claire and Felice have inherited the insanity and may potentially repeat their parents’ demise, but the result is uncertain as is the characterization. Is Felice’s play autobiographical?
Neither the actors nor their characters enjoy their imprisonment (in the theater, in the house) but they are apparently powerless to stop the play, leave the theater, leave the blood-stained crumbling house, make a different life for themselves. They deal as best they can with the situations they face with the great talents they have, the chief skill a form of madcap insanity replete with lucidity. But lucidity doesn’t help you get out of your mental prison, whether you are playacting or really being yourself. Ultimately, who you are matters little compared to will and intention. Names like Claire and Felice help, and knowing you have a play to perform helps, but when the play is so close to your reality, and threads of illusion become real, how do you know which is which? This is a Williams trope that his finest plays demonstrate.
Felice’s play and the framed situation of the two abandoned actors meld. The emotional realities merge for the actors and the characters they play and somehow the audience is caught up in this uncertainty and confusion. We understand the potential for terror and fear and hope for relief in death. In empathy we acknowledge we face our own fears, terrors and confinements within ourselves and struggle like these actors who struggle against, yet become their characters. Then abruptly, the play ends. All the plays in the mirror reflections cease. The lights come up and Plummer and Dourif take their bows. There is no easy dramatic climax and conclusion; we are no closer to resolution than the line of a circumference going round and round. Uncertainty continues as we get up and leave.
Plummer and Dourif as the explosive, zany, crazy, intelligent, emotional, devastated, witty diva-actor siblings, and the characters, the adult-children orphaned by their parents’ murder and suicide, are moment to moment. They do not let up in their ever-changing life of spontaneous feeling that takes them wherever, prompted by the power of Williams’ lyrical monologues and trenchant dialogue. They are magnificent.
The Two-Character Play is one of Williams’ finest. He would have been thrilled to watch these consummate actors travel into areas of danger and delight, the terror of uncertainty and of human confinement, progressing to an inner and outer nowhere that he created for us to contemplate.
The Two-Character Play is at New World Stages on 340 West 50th Street. It runs until September 1, 2013.